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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records  by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Religious Newspapers

Although most religious denominations still publish newspapers today, not many adherents to the church probably subscribe, and virtually none would think of publishing their BMD announcements in them. They now deal principally with religious politics or events of the church hierarchy, and although they contain obituaries, they are largely for church worthies of one kind or another.

This was not true in the past, especially in the 19th century, when our ancestors took their religion much more seriously than we do now. For many of them, the religious newspaper provided not only information about the denominational structure, but also everyday news and spiritual material, either meditations or uplifting fiction. Since the newspaper circulated throughout their area among people with whom they shared interests, they may have wanted their BMD announcements made there. Many of their acquaintances were probably of the same sect as themselves.

It is important to remember that in the pioneer period, newspapers often travelled long distances through the mail to subscribers. It was, therefore, not unusual for a family to subscribe to a journal published in Toronto, Hamilton or Kingston although they lived in the wilds of Simcoe County in the 1840s, or to a paper published in Winnipeg if they were in Prince Albert in 1905.

In an area where a great many people shared the same religious beliefs, a religious newspaper might have the same functions as a community newspaper. This appears to have been the case in some parts of the Atlantic Provinces, where there were many Baptist communities. In Newfoundland, of course, many outports were principally Anglican or Roman Catholic.

Canadian researchers are fortunate in that our census asked a question about the religion of those being listed, and even made a distinction between different groups within a particular denomination. This is very valuable now, when we may no longer know which kind of Methodist or Presbyterian our ancestors considered themselves. Once we can establish the religion of a family, we can ask if there was a denominational newspaper with a wide circulation at the time.

It may be that the newspaper in question was so well known that it would be listed in genealogical handbooks or even general works on research in a particular area. If not, turn to a church history for that sect, which will include some account of the newspaper, or ask at the church archives, which is also the best place to turn for copies of the microfilm for the journal. The archivist will quickly be able to answer questions about what titles were published and where they are now available for study.

It may also be possible to find lists of religious newspapers in bibliographies or handbooks. For example, Terrence Punch lists Nova Scotian titles in his Genealogical research in Nova Scotia (1998).

It is vital to remember that the newspaper may have been published at some distance from where your family lived, and that the location may be very different from what we expect. A pair of researchers in Elmira, Ontario were mystified by the lack of obituaries for their ancestors who lived in northern Waterloo County about 1850. No local newspaper mentioned them, although they had been early settlers and worthy citizens. A librarian suggested trying a religious newspaper, based on the known affiliation of the family with the Church of the Brethren, a form of German Baptist. After considerable work, the researchers found a Church of the Brethren newspaper published in that era in Cleveland, Ohio, not only far away, but in another country. They looked in it, and discovered lengthy obituaries for both people had been published there, to their considerable surprise. This Cleveland title was obviously the ‘home paper’ for this Brethren family in Waterloo County.

Once you locate the newspaper of your denomination, ask if there have been indexes prepared. The archives might have a card file or database created for its own local use, or there may be published indexes in book form. An Ontario Baptist publication, The Christian Messenger, was published first in Brantford and then in Hamilton. The Hamilton Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society has been publishing transcriptions from this paper for many years.

Here is a Nova Scotia example: 

A. James McCormick. The Presbyterian witness and evangelical advocate, Halifax, N.S.: vital statistics. Middleton, N.S.: J. & S. McCormick, 1992-1995. 8 volumes, covering 1847-1908. Reprinted 2000 by Pictou County Roots Society. The Presbyterian witness was published in Halifax from 1848 to 1925.

One of the most important series of religious newspaper extractions is Donald A. McKenzie’s death notices from various Methodist newspapers, which now covers a significant part of the 19th century:

Death notices from the Christian guardian, 1836-1850. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1982.

Death notices from the Christian guardian, 1851-1860. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1984.

More notices from Methodist papers, 1830-1857. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1986.

Obituaries from Ontario’s Christian guardian, 1861-1870. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1988.

Death notices from the Canada Christian advocate, 1858-1872. Lambertville, N.J.: Hunterdon House, 1992.

More notices from Ontario’s Methodist papers, 1858-1872. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 1993.

Obituaries from Ontario’s Christian guardian, 1873-1880. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 1996.

Obituaries from The Canada Christian Advocate, 1873-1884. Ottawa: D.A. MacKenzie, 1998.

More obituaries from Ontario’s Methodist papers, 1873-1884. Ottawa: D.A. McKenzie, 2001.

Although McKenzie is indexing a number of titles, the most significant is the Christian Guardian, published in Toronto from 1829 to 1925, ending only with the demise of the Methodist Church when the United Church was formed. It joined with the Presbyterian Witness and the Canadian Congregationalist to form New Outlook representing the new denomination. As with secular community newspapers, religious newspapers tended to change their name, and to merge with other papers from time to time, which will confuse researchers who are not on the lookout for these anomalies.

The Canada Christian Advocate was the organ of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, published in Hamilton, Ontario, from 1845 to 1884. If your family belonged to a group with many competing divisions (including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists), be sure the newspaper you are examining is for the correct organization.

If a religious newspaper had a strong regional emphasis, the indexes may be published with the geographical area as the focal point. The Religious Intelligencer of Saint John, New Brunswick was a Baptist publication but it served as local newspaper for parts of the province. It was published from 1858 to 1905, and is now available on microfilm from Acadia University in Wolfeville, Nova Scotia, which is Baptist in origin and has strong interests in Baptist history. The paper’s focus can be seen from its previous title (before 1858) which was, in full, Religious Intelligencer and Bible Society, Missionary and Sabbath School Advocate.

Joan Davis and Janice Seeley have published extracts from this paper under the title Sunbury County happenings: news items from the Religious Intelligencer in and around Sunbury County, compiled from micro films, Provincial Archives, New Brunswick, Canada. Although the extracts are similar in nature to those from a community paper, with births, deaths and marriages, fires and accidents, many of them contain comments of an evangelical religious nature, particularly the obituaries, in which many of those mentioned died ‘in peace’ or ‘rejoicing’ as was the religious style of those days. The actual date of baptism of some people is given in the death notices, this being believer’s or adult baptism, not the christening of infants.

Researchers may also find selected extracts from the religious titles, if someone has gone through them looking for references for a particular geographic area only. An example of this kind of title is Norfolk newspaper records: obituary notices, “Christian Guardian” Methodist newspaper, 1830-1850 (Simcoe, Ont.: Norfolk Historical Society, 1985?). Since the publication of a title such as this is unpredictable, it would only be found by a very general obituary search in the catalogue of a local library.

More modern religious publications might still contain information of a family nature, although it may be rarer or more difficult to locate. The 5 December 1940 issue of The Catholic Register (Toronto) includes an account of a couple’s silver wedding, at which eleven of their children took communion; a long obituary of M. J. O’Brien of Renfrew; a list of the officers of the Holy Name Society of St. Ann’s parish, Toronto; the Inter-Loreto Music Festival winners; the golden jubilee of Br. Jerome FSC and many more obituaries of ordinary Catholics. 

Families which had strong religious connections or clergymen as members will have left material in these titles, but researchers will also want to examine the church news in community newspapers.

Some of these newspapers may reflect the religious convictions of the editor, but others will have news of every denomination in town, in an effort to attract as many readers as possible.

The St. Mary’s Argus in Ontario included a long account of a Methodist camp meeting in Grimsby in its issue of 18 August 1881. The names mentioned are mostly those of the clergy in attendance, but the meeting may be of interest to researchers who know that their ancestors met at one of these meetings.

Camp meetings were evangelical gatherings, often very large and lasting for several days. People camped in tents (hence the name) and attended services, prayer meetings and hymn singing.

They were a common place to meet potential spouses and as a member of the Ontario Genealogical Society observed at Seminar 2002, “There were always lots of weddings right after the camp meetings.” An account of a camp meeting where ancestors met would be a fine addition to the narrative family history.

As for clergy, the departure of students for seminary was probably a cause for comment in the social column. Ordinations and subsequent missionary work or the gaining of a first charge would all be likely events for the newspaper.

The Stratford Presbytery met on Tuesday last in the Manse at Motherwell and examined Mr. A. B. Baird prior to his examination as a missionary to Fort Edmonton, N.W. Territory. (St. Mary’s Argus, 18 August 1881)

The interesting thing about this item is the lack of denominational name. Either the editor presumed everyone would know, or his religious interests were so narrow that he only wrote about one group, and all his readers knew what it was. In the 25 August issue, there is a long account of Mr. Baird’s ordination and his departure for Fort Edmonton.

Later newspapers often carried more detailed accounts of church group meetings which can provide glimpses of our ancestors’ lives. We get an idea of how they lived, and perhaps will find material for inclusion in the family history narrative.


Splendid Meeting, Simcoe St. W.M.S. The monthly meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society of Simcoe Street United Church was held on Thursday afternoon in the church. The President, Mrs. Dougall, was in the chair. The meeting opened by the singing of a hymn, followed by prayer by Mrs. Dougall and the Scripture, reading, the 46th Psalm, by Mrs. Percie Maybee. Miss Jean Keddie then sang a very pleasing solo. New Year thoughts were given by four of the ladies, taken from clippings of many years ago. The four ladies were Mrs. Turney, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. John and Mrs. Mundy. The minutes of the December meeting were rady by Mrs. Marion Burns, and the Treasurer’s report was given by Mrs. Stephenson after which Mrs. Leo Gray sang a solo. Mrs. T. H. Everson gave a most interesting talk on the W.M.S. from its early days. On Nov. 8th, 1881 the churches organized the W.M.S. and on Jan. 28, 1885, the Oshawa churches held their first W.M.S. meeting. In the month of October 1888 the first W.M.S. meeting was held in Simcoe street church with a very small attendance. Mrs. De Mille was the first president and held that office until her removal from town. Mrs. Jas. Luke was the second president, followed by Mrs. Keddie, Mrs. Oliver Hezzlewood and many other ladies down through the years have shared the honors and responsibilities and now Simcoe street W.M.S. is one of the most efficient and prosperous in the Bay of Quinte Conference. Miss Jackson, who spent the larger part of her life at Nelson House, kindly consented to be present and gave a most interesting description of her life and work at Nelson House. A hearty vote of thanks was tendered Miss Jackson at the close of her talk. The meeting closed with a hymn and the repeating of the Mizpah Benediction. The February meeting will be in charge of Miss Burns and Mrs. Armour. (Oshawa Daily Reformer, 7 January 1927)

The genealogical value of this item is marred by the lack of Christian names for many of the woman mentioned, but the history of the society is interesting, because of the former presidents who are mentioned (there may be a family member there). Mrs. Everson’s detailed talk indicates that there were some records for her to consult to obtain the exact dates she gives, and which may still be available for research to family historians, unless of course she was using her own private papers, which may not have survived. We also again notice the newspaper’s odd habit of using the form ‘Simcoe street W.M.S’.

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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.